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Drunk Drivers Given a Grim Object Lesson

October 02, 1986|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

One morning three years ago Steven Evangelisti and several young friends drove down to Rosarito Beach for the day. As do many visitors to Baja, they drank. And drank. And that night on their way home, the driver of the car Evangelisti was riding in crashed into the center divider on the San Diego Freeway. Evangelisti, riding in the passenger seat, slammed into the windshield.

Today, Evangelisti spends his days--and nights--lying in a bed at Western Neuro Care Center in Tustin. He is fed through a tube into his stomach; another tube runs into his bladder and yet another tube moves the spinal fluid out of his brain.

Evangelisti is now 24 years old. His eyes move, but he probably does not see. He is incapable of communicating, and, although he responds to sound, he probably does not understand what is being said.

"He's in what we call a vegetative state: You're alive, but that's it," said Dr. Richard Selby, a consulting neurologist at the hospital.

Selby looked down at Evangelisti, who shifted in his hospital bed, his hands curled close to his chest.

"He's been this way three years, and there is little chance he will make a significant recovery," Selby quietly said, then added: "This is quite shocking for any lay person to see."

That's precisely the point Selby wants to drive home to participants in a program that he initiated last year in conjunction with Western Neuro Care Center and the Orange County Municipal Courts in which some first-time offenders arrested for driving under the influence are ordered to serve 10 or more hours of community service at Western Neuro Care Center.

The program is used at the judge's discretion in addition to other terms of probation which could include a jail sentence, a fine or driving restrictions.

Because Western Neuro Care Center is a relatively small facility and cannot accommodate a large number of offenders at any one time, the program is primarily being used by the courts for younger or aggressive drivers who are not yet considered to be alcoholics. To date, about 35 offenders have been ordered to do community service at the facility.

At the center, the offenders' duties consist mainly of helping deliver supplies to the rooms. Some also may read letters to patients or help the activity director work with the "higher-level" brain-damaged patients.

But it's not what they do at the center that is important. It's what they see: the havoc that driving under the influence could not only inflict upon themselves but on others. The point is to literally shock them into thinking twice about ever drinking and driving again.

At Western Neuro Care Center, about 70% of the patients are head trauma victims as a result of drug- or alcohol-related accidents.

"I think it (seeing the patients) makes an impact on anybody that walks into this facility, particularly if you give them those figures," administrator Sharon Lucas said.

Lucas believes that the community service program has been good not only for the drunk-driving offenders but for hospital staff.

"When you work with this kind of patient population it can be routine," she said, adding that the offenders' presence at the facility "makes you aware of how many patients we take care of are here because of drunk driving."

"As a physician dealing with trauma," Selby said, "we see daily the devastation that alcohol-related accidents inflict on people and not only on the injured people but the family too."

Brain-Damaged Woman

Over the years, Selby has seen hundreds of cases such as Evangelisti's or the 22-year-old woman patient who went out drinking with her girlfriends one night and ended up severly brain-damaged after the car she was riding in ran into the back of a truck on the San Diego Freeway.

"About a year ago, while admitting a patient, I just got so upset and depressed," Selby said. "I felt there must be something I could do personally to see if we can't let people who drink and drive understand the consequences not only to themselves but to other human beings, and that's when we got the program started."

Selby approached Municipal Judge James P. Gray of the Central Orange County Judicial District.

As Selby discovered, Gray was "the right judge at the right time."

Indeed, when Gray was appointed judge in 1983 and took over the arraignment calendar for all out-of-custody drunk-driving defendants, he admits, "I didn't know the first thing about drunk drivers."

But, he said in an interview, after "seeing all these high blood-alcohol readings, I was appalled."

Confronted then with what he considered "the most severe problem area" faced by his court--Central Court alone averages more than 200 drunk-driving cases a month--Gray began to investigate what could be done other than "simply to move the cases along."

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